Friday, November 29, 2013

Christmas - Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

As I write this article, it’s Friday, Black Friday! November 29th, the day after Thanksgiving.   We'd just finished our last forkful of pumpkin pie, when we found ourselves hurtled headfirst into the maelstrom that is the American Holiday Machine. People are running around like the world will end if they don’t get that great deal.  Every channel has announcers screaming at you in frantic tones – doors open at 8 p.m.! Save up to 50% on 55 inch LED TVs, just $399! Save up to 50% on Samsung French door refrigerators, just $849! There are ‘doorbusters’ everywhere, designed to create frenzy and mayhem.  The recent trend has pushed Black Friday back to Thursday, Thanksgiving Day! “No seconds for me, Mom.  Gotta get to Best Buy and get that flat screen!”   I even saw ads for Kmart opening as early as 7 a.m. Thanksgiving Day! When did all this madness begin?

When I was growing up you couldn’t even buy milk on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Whatever you needed, if you didn’t buy it the day before, it was too late!  The entire city was shut down and it was wonderful. Like a holy blanket of peace had settled on the whole town.

As for me, I’m dreaming of a relaxed, stress free Christmas.  The older I get, the more I’m learning the beauty of simplicity. 

Dr. Seuss’ Grinch Who Stole Christmas taught a valuable lesson.  Despite all the Grinch’s efforts to rid Whoville of its holiday celebration, the spirit of Christmas remained in the hearts of the people. “It came without ribbons, it came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.”  To quote from Bill McKibbon’s Hundred Dollar Holiday, “After puzzling three hours ‘til his puzzler was sore, the Grinch was forced to conclude that Christmas came from no store.” 

So I’m sitting Black Friday out, still resting from my back injury and resolving not to jump on the ‘holiday’ hamster wheel.  

I resolve to keep Christ at the center of Christmas.  He is the true gift, born in a lowly manger and gloriously born in my heart some 30 years ago.   

 So at least for now, we won’t be competing in the city-wide holiday home decorating contest.   We won’t be going into debt buying exorbitant gifts we can’t afford.  

 We will continue our tradition of picking a lovely tree from our local Home Depot.  Would love to hike our way into the distant hills and cut one down our selves, but that’s just not hapnin’ this year.   We will trim the tree together as Nat King Cole croons in the background about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  For Christmas dinner, we will cook most dishes from scratch. But Jesus won’t fall off His throne, if we include some doctored up store bought items!  Perhaps like last year, we will gather with friends and go Christmas caroling, returning to the house afterwards for hot chocolate and cookies.  

Keep it simple. Right now, this is my earnest intention. But I also know, I tend to be an overachiever at heart; and it may be that once my back improves I might be tempted to start scurrying about like a chicken, stringing lights from every village and every hamlet.  So remind me friends, what are ways you avoid the holiday materialism bandwagon?

What are some practical things you do to keep Christ smack dab in the middle of your Christmas?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Real Thanksgiving Feast

It’s 1972, somewhere between four and five a.m.  Nixon is in the White House, and I am snug in my bed.  I can still hear the sound of hushed voices stirring and making their way into the hallway before descending down the stairs into the kitchen.  It’s mom and dad and the time has come. It is veiled in mystery like some Masonic lodge ritual.  I know something magical is going on and whatever it is, I feel warm inside.  Can something so special be taking place in our humble kitchen? Whatever culinary wizardry is taking place beneath me, I can’t fathom why it has to take place before the cock crows.

The night before, I sat listening quizzically to my parents. I tried to make sense of such strange words spoken in almost sacred tones. Words like ‘giblets’ and ‘the neck’ (yuck!) ‘dressing’ and ‘gravy.’ What in the world were ‘giblets’?  Whatever it was it probably wiggled and was mushy. I would never eat it! And wasn’t ‘dressing’ putting your clothes on?  The neck? What the heck? I kind of knew what gravy was but it seems like we only had it twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. By daybreak the kitchen was a whirlwind of activity. A golden behemoth sat in the oven while its mouth-watering aroma filled every crack and crevice of our house.  The meal was served on special dishes that we only saw once a year.

Fast forward 30 years. Now it was me, bandying about such words as giblets and brine.  The veil of secrecy had been lifted!  I was part of the brotherhood - a bona fide grownup.  I prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast all by myself.  When it was all done, my family bowed down in adoration at my feet, as they well should have.

And with time, the prospect of cooking the Thanksgiving meal became less intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a monumental task.  But I’m learning to be smarter and more chill about the whole thing.  The kids are older now, so I’ve got them sharing the load.  I delegate a dish or two to each of them.  Last year I cooked the turkey, gravy and dressing.  (I’ve simplified this by cooking turkey drumsticks and thighs instead of the massive bird since we love the dark meat more anyway). My husband ‘cooked’ the ham (it was one of those pre-cooked spiral glazed numbers). Daughter one prepared the mashed potatoes and green beans. Daughter two whipped up the corn pudding, rolls and yams. And my two sons fixed the macaroni and cheese. Voila! We thoroughly enjoyed our feast and it wasn’t too much work for any one person.

We’ll see how things go this year, as my back went out yesterday and I’m on bed rest and Vicodin!  So I couldn’t stress out this year, even if I wanted to. Which is fine because,
in the end, the food, the fancy china, the centerpieces are all secondary.  It’s about the expression of gratitude for the Lord’s bounty in our lives.  The gravy, the giblets, pumpkin pie, it’s all good.  But acknowledging God’s goodness and faithfulness in the presence of our closest loved ones - that’s the real feast.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Seasons: Reflections on Fall Leaves and Kids Growing Up

The past few weeks, I’ve been raking my share of leaves in the front yard. It’s so satisfying to see the grass again under the golden blanket of fall foliage.  A mélange of oranges, bright yellows and plum colors.  That relief is short lived as a new day brings a new bounty of twirling leaves littering the yard again like so much flotsam.

It is the changing of the seasons.  Brisk fall is no match for winter’s wicked winds.  The days of lookin’ cute outdoors are quickly passing.   “The hawk” is spreading his wings and preparing for his descent even now.

Autumn came gradually sudden. It’s an oxymoron I know, but somehow each year it catches me unawares.  I just reach the acceptance stage of summer with its swelter, and before I know it, the green leaves of the beech trees are browning before my eyes.  Glorious summer flowers are replaced by bright pumpkins and hardy mums.

It’s the dawn of a new season.  And as the temperature spirals along with the leaves, I find myself reflecting on the passage of time and the changes it brings. Seasons remind me that nothing in this life will stay the same. We are always in constant flux.   Life abounds with summer, spring, winter and fall moments.

My relationship with seasons could be characterized as love/hate. Don’t’ get me wrong; there’s no danger of me moving to Florida.  The day in day out sameness of it all, like Groundhog Day, would drive me insane. And yet if Change had a fan club, I would not be a member.

You see, I’m a sentimentalist at heart, and sometimes I find myself yearning for days gone by.  I used to have four children; now I have three and three quarters adults!  I loved the thrill of being with-child; seeing that tiny life undulating within my belly. Giving birth – on this subject I shall remain silent for your sake.

Enjoying the fruit of my labor – a brand spankin’ new baby - fresh and plump as a Thanksgiving turkey, complete with roly poly thighs. Nursing ‘til milk cascaded down their fat cheeks.  Even the little things, like the irresistible grunts and gurgles they would make while being picked up, squirming and tucking their knees, never once opening their eyes.  Memories like these create a deep longing.

Yesterday, as I was leaving Aldi’s, I beheld a cherubic faced Asian baby in a shopping cart.  His little eyes followed me, and as his mother turned to lift her bag, I had the mad, nearly irresistible sensation of grabbing that little dumpling and stuffing him in my car. (Just kidding!)

Ahhhh. But nostalgia can make amnesiacs of the best of us.

Labors that lasted through the night, complete exhaustion, two, four, and six a.m. feedings, earsplitting crying sessions, mammoth diaper bags, backbreaking strollers all seem to fade to black with the passage of time. They are now but fuzzy memories, rather like the blind man in the Bible who saw men as trees walking.

And now, like the fall leaves spinning to the earth, I find myself occupying a new spot of ground. This is a new season. My three oldest kids all drove out this morning to head to college classes. My ‘baby boy’ just turned 17 last week. And I feel a peculiar mixture of melancholy and exhilaration.

My little man is gone. Never again will he look up at me with those sad eyes of his and say “Mommy, do you love me?”  (He would ask me this whenever I got irritated with him about something or other).  On the contrary, he now soars above me at six feet one inch, with his once wiry arms now bursting with the muscles of a man.

At the same time I feel the distinct, sensation of wings forming and slowly unfurling. I hear Dixieland tunes springing up within my soul as I find myself with more time on my hands. And as my teen now works independently on his assignments, I can enjoy quality times with the Lord, write to my heart’s content, curl up with Toni Morrison or Jane Austen, try that new recipe, give my house a thorough clean down, or watch “The Voice”.

Each season has its lessons. Fall reminds me that everything of this life will soon pass away; that life as I know it right now will change, trade its glorious colors, and soon fall away.  But the gifts of each season are mine for the taking. And I am learning to strike that fine balancing act of savoring and treasuring, yet not clinging too tightly. For, like the leaves, even these golden moments are passing away.  Therefore, I shall treasure them for what they are and take more pictures!

So, as I wax nostalgic and find myself getting misty eyed, I listen to the saga of the leaves. I rake them to the curb for now and await the spring.  I fold my summer clothes, pack them away and begin hanging warm sweaters and fluffy coats.

I shall revel in winter with its crispness, the hope of a great snowfall and barreling down the hills in a snow tube. I shall embrace its gifts – gifts of steaming bowls of soup and stew, mugs of hot chocolate dolloped with whipped cream, and always hearty peals of family laughter as we settle in for the winter in our cozy home. The spring will come soon enough with its new birth and new joys.